June 2016 Church & State | Featured

In December of 2005, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III struck down a policy in the Dover, Pa., public school district that was designed to promote “intelligent design” creationism.

Religious Right warhorse Phyllis Schlafly was not happy.

Schlafly, noting that Jones was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush, opined that his ruling was a type of betrayal.

“Judge John E. Jones III could still be chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board if millions of evangelical Christians had not pulled the lever for George W. Bush in 2000,” Schlafly carped. “Yet this federal judge, who owes his position entirely to those voters and the president who appointed him, stuck the knife in the backs of those who brought him to the dance in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.”

The assertion that a judge should eschew independence and toe a partisan line would seem odd to many Americans. Not Schlafly. For more than 50 years the far-right warrior has hoisted the banner for the Religious Right.

Operating from a command center in Alton, Ill., Schlafly has run the Eagle Forum, a small but influential Religious Right organization, since 1972. Schlafly first came to national prominence when she took on feminism and helped derail the Equal Rights Amendment. Since then, her organization has adopted all of the standard Religious Right issues: It pushes for conservative forms of Chris­tianity in public schools, works to stop the spread of LGBT rights (despite the fact that one of Schlafly’s sons is gay), opposes legal abortion and obsesses about alleged Islamic indoctrination in public schools.

But Schlafly, a conservative Roman Catholic, attorney and prolific author who is now 91, may be on the verge of a forced retirement. In April, the Eagle Forum’s 11-member Board of Directors convened a meeting via telephone designed to oust Ed Martin, a Schlafly ally, as president of the group. The coup was led in part by Anne Schlafly Cori, Schlafly’s own daughter.

In an email to the group’s supporters, Martin asserted that a “Gang of Six” board members were seeking to take over the Eagle Forum. Phyllis Schlafly complained that while she was permitted to listen in on the call, she wasn’t allowed to speak.

“The rogue group members have a hidden agenda, and most refused to return phone calls personally made to them by Phyllis to ask them what their concerns are,” Martin wrote. He added that the six dissidents are being advised by “a big liberal law firm.”

Schlafly told the far-right website WorldNetDaily that she might lose control of the organization she founded.

“The six board members calling today’s telephone meeting won’t tell me what the meeting is about, but I think it’s an attempt to vote me out,” Schlafly said. “It’s disloyal and it’s terribly shocking, and I’m completely depressed about it.”

By the end of April, the matter was in court. The dissident board faction filed a lawsuit in an Illinois court seeking to remove Schlafly from the Eagle Forum bank accounts and get rid of Martin as president. Schlafly’s son John, Eagle Forum secretary, is named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, but Phyllis Schlafly is not.  

What caused all of this fuss? It may be more fallout from the contentious Republican Party primary.

In March, Schlafly publicly endorsed real estate mogul Donald Trump for president. A photo of Schlafly being escorted by Martin and another man to an applauding Trump circulated on many conservative websites.

“I think he has the courage and the energy – you know, you have to have energy for that job – in order to bring some changes – to do what the grass- roots want him to do because this is a grassroots uprising,” Schlafly said during a March 11 Trump rally in St. Louis. “We’ve been following the losers for so long. Now we’ve got a guy who’s going to lead us to victory.”

But some Eagle Forum stalwarts were apparently appalled at Schlafly’s endorsement of the thrice-married reality TV star who has never, until recently, claimed to be especially devout.

At least some members of the Gang of Six had endorsed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Word is they were displeased by Schlafly’s decision to go for Trump. (Cruz dropped out of the race May 3, clearing the field for Trump.)

Cathie Adams, who leads the Eagle Forum’s Texas affiliate, implied that Trump’s forces had taken advantage of the aging Schlafly.

“We have no respect for that man,” Adams told the Dallas Morning News, speaking of Trump. “I think this was very much a manipulation. When you’re 91 and you’re not out with the grassroots all the time, it is very much taking advantage of someone.”

Trump has been a polarizing figure for many conservative evangelicals. Some, like Jerry Falwell Jr., have rallied behind Trump’s xenophobia and anti-Muslims screeds. Others, such as Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, say his frequently coarse behavior hardly exemplifies Christian values. Still others are simply worried that Trump can’t win in November.

For her part, Schlafly is going down fighting. She wrote the Gang of Six a letter on April 10 demanding that they resign from the board. On April 18, Martin emailed supporters a video of Schlafly during which she claimed that the recent board meeting that reportedly ousted Martin was not valid.

“I’m still in charge, and we have so much important work to do,” a smiling Schlafly said on the video. She then proceeded to discuss the upcoming GOP convention and plug her new book about how she helped make the Republican Party anti-abortion.

“We’re cooking, and I hope you’re with us all the way,” Schlafly said.

Yet Schlafly’s status with the group remains unclear. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Schlafly was still chair and CEO of the organization, but her ability to choose a successor may be in jeopardy.

The dissident faction insisted that Martin, not Schlafly, was their target, with some board members lodging complaints about his management style.

Martin’s status with the group is also fuzzy. The board has voted to replace him with Eunie Smith, an Eagle Forum activist in Alabama, but Martin insists he’s still in charge.

On April 12, Martin told KMOX radio in St. Louis, “I am still president.” He asserted that the board’s actions were invalid and added, “So we just go ahead. We’ve got work to do.”

Schlafly told the Post-Dispatch she is uncertain about Martin’s status. Asked if Martin were still president, she replied, “I think that’s an open question. I consider him president.”

Ten days later, Schlafly appeared on Sean Hannity’s radio program and complained of a “conspiracy” of board members who “decided they could run Eagle Forum better than I could and wanted to take it over.” Schlafly added, “I wasn’t ready to give it up.”

The Eagle Forum, which claims 80,000 members nationwide, has never been a large outfit. Operating with a budget of about $1.7 million, it’s something of a family-run enterprise. Aside from Schlafly’s daughter serving on the board, her son John works for the group. Another Schlafly son, Bruce, was listed as a board member in 2014. (Perhaps reflecting the current troubled situation, the link to governance bodies on the Eagle Forum website leads nowhere.)

Despite her modest soapbox, Schlafly has been a fixture on the Religious Right for decades. In 1964 she published an influential book, A Choice Not An Echo, which attacked the “establishment” wing of the Republican Party, as represented by Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York, for its social liberalism. The tome sold several million copies.

Schlafly and other conservatives later mobilized to drive social liberals out of the GOP or to marginalize them. As the Religious Right grew in power throughout the 1980s, the party increasingly became defined by its opposition to legal abortion, gay rights, women’s rights and church-state separation. The party’s once-robust liberal wing was dead by the end of the presidency of Ronald W. Reagan.

As years passed, the Eagle Forum was eclipsed by larger Religious Right groups like the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council. Still, Schlafly plugged away from her base in Alton. She was often on the road. Some feminists cracked that Schlafly had made a full-time job out of telling women not to work.

The group joined the attacks on President Bill Clinton during the 1990s and flared up again when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008. The headlines of some recent Schlafly columns give a feel for the organization’s worldview. A defense of recalcitrant clerk Kim Davis was titled “Judicial Tyranny in Kentucky,” while another piece warned against “Islamic Indoctrination in Textbooks.”

An old-school Cold Warrior, Schlaf­ly has a special fear and loath­ing of China. One column warned “Chinese Crowding Our College Campuses” while another scored “Obama’s Giveaway to the Communists.”

In 2004, Schlafly issued a newsletter blasting “out-of-control federal and state judges” for legalizing marriage equality. She went so far as to call for the impeachment of judges who hand down rulings she dislikes and asserted that Congress should withhold “taxpayers’ money from the states” that permitted same-sex marriage.

As far to the right as Schlafly’s opinions can be, she’s not wrong on everything. The Eagle Forum has consistently opposed the convening of a new Constitutional Convention (or “con-con”).

Over the years, groups on the left and the right have embraced a con-con as a way to make changes to the Constitution. In recent years, some conservatives have begun a new push, aiming to add provisions to the Constitution barring same-sex marriage and legal abortion. Others want to add a school prayer amendment to the Constitution or a provision stating that the country is a “Christian nation.” (See “Faux Founders,” April 2014 Church & State.)

Schlafly may favor some of these ideas, but under her rule the Eagle Forum has steadfastly opposed a new Constitutional Convention as a way to bring them about. She argues that a convention, once convened, can’t be limited to one or two issues. Schlafly believes the move would be dangerous because liberals might take over and change the Constitution in ways that displease the right.

Groups like Americans United, on the other hand, worry about the opposite. They fear that a con-con would be hijacked by Religious Right groups that would fundamentally alter the meaning of the First Amendment. This shared fear of mutually assured destruction led Americans United and the Eagle Forum to work together in the 1980s to successfully stop efforts to call a new convention.

Some of the problems the Eagle Forum is experiencing may be due to the lack of a succession plan. Given her advanced age, it’s unrealistic to think Schlafly could continue at the helm. She picked Martin as her successor, but he apparently was not her first choice.

In a radio interview with right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, Schlafly bluntly stated that she originally planned to have her daughter take control of the group. Schlafly didn’t say why that plan fell through, but she did add that other candidates were considered – among them former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).

“A lot of our people wanted us to pick Michele Bachmann, and she certainly has a lot of talent, a very fine speaker, and so forth,” Schlafly told Jones. “But she knew nothing about running an organization, and she knew nothing about politics outside of her own domain.”

As the drama plays out, the struggle for control of the Eagle Forum has devolved into a complicated saga involving warfare between the group’s various arms – it has a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) division, a more political (c)(4) branch and a political action committee.

Other Religious Right groups have piled on. The American Family Association, which supported Cruz, ran a story on April 28 pointing out that Schlafly was still backing Trump even after the New York mogul told NBC’s “Today” show that he favors changing the Republican Party platform to allow abortions in the case of rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother.

It remains unclear how all of this will shake out. As this issue of Church & State went to press, the matter was still tied up in court.